A Fearlessly Progressive Star
by Paul Buhle
From the Spring, 2015 issue of Jewish Currents
Reviewed in this Essay: Becoming Belafonte: Black Artist, Public Radical, by Judith E. Smith. University of Texas Press, 2014, 221 pages.
LAST NOVEMBER, when Harry Belafonte accepted the “Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award” from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his lifelong dedication to the fight for social justice, he expressed some mixed feelings about Hollywood. He vividly recalled the racial caricatures in the Tarzan movies of his childhood, and other bitter memories were not entirely distant. Still, he said, upon hearing of the award, “I kvelled.” His word choice offered a warm and revealing hint at his long experience with Jewish progressives of the type and generation that created Jewish Currents.
Now let’s back up a bit. We need some context to take in the depth, the insights, and the poignant prose of Judy Smith’s Becoming Belafonte, the first full-length study to explore his music, film, and television work in its political context. Smith’s 2004 volume, Visions of Belonging: Family Stories, Popular Culture and Postwar Democracy, 1940-1960, laid the basis for her current book by showing how American popular culture had crucial moments of democratic promise, including interracial commitment. Smith hinted more than argued explicitly that “Popular Front” artists and audiences had a great deal to do with creating these moments. The support given by hundreds of thousands of people who were just to the left of the New Deal to “topical” theater, film, music, popular novels, and even children’s books was absolutely crucial — and to say that Jews were central to this phenomenon is almost redundant.
Perhaps no other singer-entertainer thrilled the Borscht Belt crowd of the 1950s like Harry Belafonte — at least, that’s what old-timers used to tell me. Filmmaker Abraham Lincoln Polonsky quipped that wives would ask their husbands to hold their fur coats while they gathered around Belafonte. He was incredibly handsome, the first African-American to become a national sex symbol (when he appeared in Life magazine in a windbreaker), and a great singer, dancer, and actor. He was also, in an era of politically fearful celebrities, the rare leading man of Broadway and Hollywood to place himself fearlessly in front of political rallies.
Smith examines the context of Belafonte’s life, which began in Harlem poverty nearly ninety years ago, moved to Jamaica, where the music scene was wildly creative, then back to Harlem and into the circle around Paul Robeson. Belafonte owed plenty to the battlers for civil rights and civil liberties, and he made no bones about it. His rising celebrity also brought him to the attention of Cold War operatives. Danny Glover, asked about the Hersholt award, remarked that “the blacklist was and is part of our historic memory” — which says a mouthful about the conditions under which Belafonte worked for decades.
But early in his singing career, writes Smith, he was urged by black “proletarian” novelist and television writer William Attaway to “view folk songs as a body of social knowledge, a collective resource open to all.” Folk music allowed Belafonte’s performance career to take off, with a mixture of American and international work songs, calypsos, and other material. The blacklisters could not stop him there.
There were plenty of other folksingers, of course, but Belafonte found a mass audience that few of them found, at least until Joan Baez’s breakthrough (she, too, had a famous photo session at Life). For young people in the 1950s, Belafonte’s “Day-O” and other Afro-Caribbean adaptations offered a lifeline to the discovery of the Southern civil rights movement and opened up black history as a resource to stoke people’s determination and creativity in struggles across the world.
BELAFONTE’S HOLLYWOOD CAREER was less pleasing. He was able to get occasional, seemingly major film parts, something rare for black actors in the 1950s, Sidney Poitier aside — but Bright Road (1953) wasn’t given much of a chance in theaters. Even when Belafonte had a major starring opportunity in Carmen Jones (1954), he was not allowed to sing.
Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), produced by Belafonte himself, should be understood as a daring effort at creative control. It was written behind a “front” by the blacklisted Abe Polonsky, with a score by Quincy Jones and a strong portrayal of a white racist by the sympathetic liberal Robert Ryan. It nevertheless flopped — because to show an “angry black man” to white American audiences was to ensure failure, or so the film industry decided.
Belafonte continued to be spectacularly successful as a singer, especially after his appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. But the stress of being a radical black performer in 1950s America took its toll, certainly on his first marriage and probably on other parts of his personal life. His personal manager during the early 1950s even turned out to be a Communist-turned-FBI-informer! Undaunted, excited by the grassroots mobilization coming out of Montgomery, Alabama, Belafonte threw himself into the rising civil rights movement, risking his career again and again by openly associating with leftwingers and militant protestors, as Becoming Belafonte shows with impressively rich detail.
Many readers will remember his performance in homage to rebellious Africa in live shows with Miriam Makeba and others. Most will not recall the sharp satire of racism in A Time for Laughter, a 1967 ABC special featuring Nipsy Russell and Dick Gregory. Smith is especially keen on discussing the barriers preventing African Americans from presenting their full selves on television and film. They could be singers, musicians, funny entertainers, or sometimes pathetic victims of society in dramas, but not much else. Belafonte struggled heroically within the constraints, but could not overcome them.
The Angel Levine (1970), another film produced by Belafonte, based on a story by Bernard Malamud and starring Zero Mostel (also a blacklist victim), Ida Kaminska, and Belafonte, was especially memorable. Modestly supported by the Ford Foundation, the film paid homage to the “black-Jewish alliance,” by then badly askew, by portraying an aged Jewish couple visited by a black “angel of death.” Despite a brilliant performance by Kaminska as the dying wife and the provocations of Belafonte as a black Jew, the film died at the box office.
Becoming Belafonte ends there. The struggles in which he subsequently engaged, from South Africa to Los Angeles, would require another book.
Over the years, I have advised students to grapple with the history of progressive, interracial politics in the pages of Freedomways magazine (1961- 85), where the best of the Popular Front traditions continued, with the worst parts (illusions about the Soviet Bloc) increasingly absent. Another way to locate the best of these traditions is to see how they shaped and found expression in Belafonte’s career. Becoming Belafonte reveals how he continued to convey the political commitments and cultural vision he had forged, as part of the black and interracial left of the late 1940s, into the 1950s and ’60s. The world of Harry Belafonte, the political and cultural giant, is on display in this engagingly written, meticulously researched book.
Paul Buhle is the biographer, with Dave Wagner, of Abraham Polonsky, and the author of several works on blacklisted artists. His comic art books include Yiddishkeit (with Harvey Pekar), Bohemians, and, most recently, Abraham Lincoln for Beginners.
Watch The Angel Levine (1970) on YouTube: